It’s easy to make Antoinette Oliphant happy.
“This makes me smile so big,” said Whitehorse’s newest restaurateur, lifting yam crisps out of a hot, cast-iron frying pan in her brightly coloured, spotless kitchen on Second Avenue.
The food fetish started when Oliphant was small.
The little girl didn’t read about “seeing Spot run,” she read recipe books.
“I always thought I’d have a little roti hang-out place,” she said.
But it never panned out.
Oliphant’s restaurants “always fell into high-end things.”
“This is good food, but it’s not fussy or froufrou,” she said.
It was just after nine in the morning at Antoinette’s International Slow Food restaurant and Oliphant still had to prep the sweet potato pie; the pumpkin, prosciutto and goat cheese pizza; bacon, leak and potato soup; a broccoli and tomato quiche, and her curry chicken roti.
“I always have to have a roti,” she said.
The rest of the menu changes daily.
“What Antoinette feels like in the morning is what you get,” said Oliphant, scooping a blended brown mixture into a baking pan.
The veggie loaf “looks like dog mush but is actually quite delicious,” she said.
Oliphant is not new to the territory.
For the last two summers she’s run Antoinette’s in Dawson City.
And she hopes to be working under the midnight sun in the Klondike again this year, if she can convince her parents to come up from Toronto to run the Whitehorse restaurant.
“I learned all I know from Ruby and Pezzie,” she said, referring to her mom and grandmother.
Her mom ran a vegan vegetarian restaurant in Toronto for years.
But Oliphant didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business until she opened her first restaurant in Manitoba, after moving there with an ex-partner.
“That was the first time I’d ever cooked in a restaurant — talk about bold,” she said.
“Suddenly I was cooking for 500 instead of five.”
A self-described Renaissance woman, Oliphant had tried her hand at a number of jobs in Toronto.
After taking a crack at being a chiropractor’s assistant, she ended up working in public relations at American Express for three years, before opening La Table des Bonne Soeurs in an old Manitoba convent.
“It was beautiful,” said Oliphant, remembering weddings that were held there.
One of the regular customers coming for the homemade international fare was co-owner of Dawson’s Aurora Inn.
She offered Oliphant a job.
“What the heck would a black lesbian do in Dawson,” said Oliphant with a laugh.
But, when her relationship ended, Dawson didn’t seem quite so far away.
Oliphant hadn’t heard from her Aurora Inn customer in six months, but the day after she decided to close up her convent kitchen, she got a serendipitous e-mail and was soon Aurora’s chef.
She only lasted a year.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” she said.
“I’m too cocky to work for someone else — or I’m a control freak.”
That first year in Dawson, Oliphant found herself drawn to a little house she always walked past that was built in 1908.
“I wanted to buy it, but it wasn’t for sale,” she said.
Then, miraculously, a For Sale sign appeared in the fall.
Trouble was, Oliphant was still paying off a house in Manitoba as well as debts from her first restaurant.
The little house belonged to Stuart and Nancy Schmidt and Oliphant went to meet the couple anyway.
“I told them I wanted their house but had no money,” she said.
A few days later, Oliphant got a call from the Schmidts, who were customers at the Aurora and loved her cooking.
“They told me I could have the house and pay when I can,” she said, her voice cracking.
Oliphant moved upstairs and opened her restaurant on the ground floor.
She’s been making steady payments ever since.
But this year, after doing lots of renos, Oliphant found herself strapped for cash and ended up in Marsh Lake working at a friend’s bakery.
Then in the fall, she noticed a space for rent where Ted’s East Coast Café used to be, across from the Whitehorse Public Library.
“I walked into the place and it was disgusting beyond disgusting,” she said.
“I almost brought up several times cleaning it.”
Oliphant spent three days — five hours a day — scrubbing just the stove.
“And that’s no exaggeration,” she said.
Moving the kitchen out of its tiny nook in the dining room and opening up the back storage area also made a huge difference.
Her friend Kim Biernaskie helped build shelves and wainscoting and Oliphant painted. But the dining room colours did not turn out to be as bright as she’s hoped.
“I’m a primary-colour person,” she said, sporting a bright, woven Rasta hat.
Born in Tobago, in the Republic of Trinidad, Oliphant grew up in Toronto.
“I say my kids are Heinz 57,” she said with a grin. “I’m Scottish, Chinese, Irish with a little bit of black in there somewhere.”
An array of mismatched tables with patterned cloths sit in the cozy, if somewhat muted dining room.
Oliphant picked most of them up secondhand. But when she gets more money, she needs to buy smaller ones.
It gets so crowded she’s had customers share tables.
“And some people leave because they can’t handle it,” she said.
“It’s very North American to be like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know you, don’t look at me.’”
But having people sit down together and enjoy savoury, healthy food is what Antoinette’s is all about.
“You need to sit down and eat — we’re running too much,” she said.
“It’s like they say in Jamaica, ‘Slow down man — slow down and speed up.’
“Because if you slow down, you actually get more done.”
Although Oliphant calls her culinary creations slow food, they don’t necessarily fit the slow food movement’s mantra.
It’s mostly concerned with organics and whole foods, she said.
“And I pay attention to that — but it’s more my food’s not fast.
“I don’t cook things five days before.”
On shelves behind Oliphant are bottles of pumpkin seed oil, red wine, cans of coconut milk, a jar of ghee, some ripe persimmons, long pale daikon radishes and a sliced-up dragon fruit.
“I’m impressed with the number of things I found in Whitehorse,” said Oliphant, who also gets goods shipped in from Outside.
“Because if you’re not in the Yukon, you’d think it would have nothing.”
It’s not just about great ingredients though; it’s also about how these ingredients are used.
“I’m blessed with a lot of creativity, from my mom and my grandma,” said Oliphant, straining another batch of yam crisps.
“There are at least five things I can do with these,” she added.
Then, Oliphant saw the time.
Her slow food was dawdling.
“I’ve got lots of work to do,” she said.
Lunch was in a couple of hours, and she still had to swing by a local grocery for some fresh produce.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Oliphant, who’s looking for a permanent assistant and servers.
That’s why Antoinette’s is only open for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., Monday to Friday, and from 5 to 8 p.m. for dinner, Wednesday to Friday.
Contact Genesee Keevil at